San Juan County Council places moratorium on new vacation rental permits

As of 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 13, San Juan County has a moratorium on vacation rentals. The county council unanimously approved a six-month pause on vacation rental permits to consider changes to the regulations during its regular meeting on Jan. 12.

“This is an auspicious moment in the 2021 progression of the county council and we’re all grateful for it,” Orcas islander Toby Cooper said during public testimony on Jan. 12.

The moratorium, according to Deputy Prosecutor Amy Vira, will last for six months. Within 60 days of the moratorium beginning, the county council is required to hold a public hearing about it — that hearing is scheduled for Feb. 23, the meeting itself begins at 9 a.m. Prior to that hearing, however, on Jan. 25, the council will learn updated vacation rental statistics from county staff, that meeting also begins at 9 a.m. For more information about how to attend both meetings, visit

The day before, on Jan. 11, the topic was brought up during the public access portion of the meeting.

“We have talked about this now for a couple of years, as you know,” Cooper said on Jan. 12.

Quality and quantity are the two aspects that need to be addressed in regulation changes, according to Cooper. There is a “litany of stories” from the islands surrounding vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods, Cooper continued.

“Neighborhoods being invaded, literally, by numbers of vacation rentals in what used to be a quiet neighborhood,” Cooper said.

Stories Cooper said he has heard include a teenage boy setting fire to a brush pile just before his family vacated their vacation home; horse trailers and horses parked in a neighbor’s yard; and a shed being sawed in half when the property line between a vacation rental and a neighbor moved upon inspection bisecting the shed.

“And on and on, there are lots of these stories,” Cooper said, adding that most people come to the islands for a calm vacation and that the nightmare stories he hears are the outliers. “The more permits there are, the more of the outliers there are. That’s just a mathematical equation.”

Orcas islander Janet Alderdon noted vacation rental density, the character of the community and the strain on resources as other reasons to revise existing regulations.

“The idea that we are encouraging people to come here from other places is really sort of appalling,” Orcas islander Eleanor Hoague said.

According to the Department of Community Development Director Erika Shook, the county’s vacation rental statistics have not been updated since last April. At that time, there 963 vacation rental permits in San Juan County, 331 were non-compliant. Those who were not compliant by last month would have their permits revoked, according to an interview with former Council Member Rick Hughes in October 2020.

More than 3,000 people have signed a petition insisting the county impose a moratorium, according to Orcas islander Lisa Byers.

“I believe there is political will and support for the action you’re taking today,” Byers said during public access at the Jan. 12 meeting.

Reasons for signing the petition, according to Byers, included wanting to “reduce the erosion” of long-term rentals; protect the islands’ rural character; and focus on maintaining the quality of life in neighborhoods and in the islands as a whole. She stated that better regulation of vacation rentals is part of the community’s stewardship of the islands.

Paraphrasing former county commissioner Eleanor Howard, Byers said, “You have to be a little more careful with an island.”

Byers and Cooper are two of the founding members of the Orcas Island Vacation Rental Working Group, which formed in July 2019 in an effort to begin a community conversation about the growing number of vacation rentals in the county. The working group was the first to suggest the county council adopt a moratorium and adopt new vacation rental regulations.

In May 2019, the Eastsound Planning Review Committee voted to request the San Juan County Council enact a year-long moratorium on vacation rental permits in Eastsound’s village core. Data from the EPRC showed that more than half of the new structures being built in San Juan County were for second homes or vacation rentals.

When the county council declined to act upon the request, the vacation rental working group formed and held three community meetings on Orcas. The group traveled to Friday Harbor to take its pleas to the county council in November 2019 and once again in February 2020.

At those meetings, proponents of the moratorium cited inadequate septic systems; limited water availability; noise; safety; lack of affordable housing for long-term renters; natural environment degradation; rural community destruction and more as reasons to restrict vacation rental permits.

The San Juan County Planning Commission suggested November 2020 that the council enact a moratorium. It’s recommended actions included the moratorium on approving new applications.

“So we don’t get, kind of a flood of new applications as we’re considering possible changes,” SJC Planner III Adam Zack said at the Jan. 11 meeting.

Other recommendations included the new regulations not affecting existing permitted vacation rentals; placing a cap on the number of vacation rentals per island, neighborhood, or other small geographic areas; the cap not exceeding the existing number of permits; ensuring vacation rental permits are tied to the landowner and not the land itself; and reviewing enforcement provisions.

“It’s been a really pressing issue for quite a number of people across the county,” Orcas islander Judy Scott said during the Jan. 12 public access.